Think global and act local – Scotland’s test case

Readers of this blog will surely know by now that I am all for a free economy and for non-restraint of trade: If, for example, some Scottish diners want to keep on reinventing local food traditions – deep-fried Mars bars at the local chippy – who am I, indeed who is anyone else to question the process.It’s a matter of consumer choice and consumer responsibility, another issue close to my heart.

But if, say, the Scottish Government should take up an enabling role; helping to trade-mark and export market the snack and define its proper specifications and then only permit Scottish-produced batter and Scottish-made Mars bars into the product mix – then we are clearly into some different territory.

Nearer to home, and back in July of this year I highlighted the Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of that country’s waste management; in particular, the suggestion of a differentiated Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system for Scotland. The deadline for this response is 28th September and the Packaging Federation has already made its contribution to the debate.

It is right and proper that Scotland is putting clarity, direction and energy behind its process of governance – including the governance of waste management. Certain parts of Westminster today could do much worse – both for the quality of the consultation and for the matters raised.

It is also good that Scotland – in tandem with many leading recyclers and industrialists – now sees resources where it used to see ‘waste’. However a differentiated PRN system for Scotland is wrong in principle and unworkable in practice.

I have no need to rehearse protectionist arguments here: My main point is that today’s challenges of resource efficiency and material flows are evidently a global challenge not a Scottish one. To think otherwise is to invite chaos. Much of what is sold in Scotland is manufactured elsewhere and vice versa; including the importing and exporting of waste from within and without the United Kingdom.

Consequently, action which may be taken to specifically safeguard resources for the Scottish economy will fly in the face of the on-the-ground realities of material usage. Such intervention will then result in additional costs to businesses within Scotland and will carry no net benefit to the overall Scottish economy. Action taken to maximise the efficiency of material usage and the reuse of material at “end of life” is to be wholly commended but only as part of a coordinated policy within the UK as a whole.

The Scottish Government may be nurturing an idea that a bespoke system of waste administration may differentiate Scotland in a positive manner and may earn it a top spot in the league of recycling nations. In truth, this is a chimera. There is no such advantage and no such league. The realities of resource management are increasingly global. ‘Muck and Brass’, as it used to be, generally succeeds in finding its own level. In today’s parlance, ‘closed loop’ schemes and carbon footprints don’t care about origin or destination as long as the lowest and optimal numbers are reached.

The Scottish Government has already taken considerable steps to facilitate increased collection rates and recycling quality. These should now be allowed to proceed without further costly changes to the system.

The Packaging Federation believes that recycling success will be driven by unlocking the value of collected materials and by engagement of Scottish consumers. The impact of these is many times greater than the non-existent benefits from changing the existing PRN system. We hope that the Scottish Government takes the same view.

Many thanks

Dick Searle

The wrong loop…

Dick SearleLast week I promised more on the Government’s recent consultation about the UK’s material recycling targets. Indeed, these are issues that will run and run and will deserve our regular attention in this column.

My focus this week is the assumption within the legislature that the ‘products’ of the packaging sector, however defined, should always contain a measure of recycled materials. Where general resource efficiency and cost effectiveness apply – we agree.

In fact, for decades these recycling practices have been applied in packaging, largely unsung and unnoticed. The reason? It just makes good business sense to reuse and recycle; from the days of the door step milk bottle to paper and board industries to metals and cans, to utility plastics goods where consumer safety is not compromised.

The recycling model works in all cases where the supply and cost of recycled materials allows them to be factored back into a product, any product, which can then be sold to the consumer at a competitive price. The recyclate and the consumer products sink or swim in a free market in the usual way. Let’s be clear, anything else is doomed.

Today of course, the ancillary aim is to replace the general stock of virgin or new materials with second life materials in products. No problem whatsoever with that.

However, in keeping an eye on this aim it is not possible, practical or even helpful to make a number of ‘end-use’ sectors responsible for the job – least of all packaging which is not an end use sector at all but a part of all manufactured goods.

All manufacturing – construction; automotive; white and brown goods, healthcare; food and drink – has a self-interested role to play in resource efficiency. More than ever we need to step back and take a holistic view of waste and recycling within the whole economy. In this sense SIC coded divisions within it – and their related recycling targets – are artificial and unhelpful.

There is of course one organic driver to the whole – and that is the consumer. Consumers decide and drive our market economies. They also determine the real appetite for recycled content products by voting with their wallets. And while the consumer appetite for green style products was always a minority interest, it is clear now that even that demand has waned in the last 2/3 years.

Supermarkets have shown us the picture – based on obvious reasons of price, recession and affordability. Green products – often premium price with recyclate content or messages – are now stocked less. General and supermarketing talk of carbon footprinting and labeling of packaging and products has now largely disappeared – at least in the UK.  Practical considerations, and the huge costs involved, are reasserting themselves.

Our Government – and the wider European framework – should take note. I suggest that new strategies and a new mind set is needed.

Until things change, let’s assume the following:

Consumers, to date at least, cannot be relied upon in any way to drive or guarantee resource efficiency or the uptake of recycled materials other than through usual market forces and conditions.

Producers and manufacturers should not be made to create artificial markets or bear costs for recyclate where it is uncompetitive and unwanted.

We need a fresh and holistic view about resource efficiency in and across all manufacturing and all supply chains.

That would be a start. And we’re certainly ready to play our full part.

Thanks again

Dick Searle

Recycle more but consume less?

Dick SearleSo. The Government’s consultation about the UK’s material recycling targets is at an end – and the politicians and civil servants are now preparing again to tell UK manufacturing what it expects of us in terms of recycling.

It’s really not my place to dive into all of the consequences and the material details… wherein the devil lurks. However, I surely will have more than one or two things to say about what happened along the way and what may yet happen.

Consider this aspect for starters: As part of The Packaging Federation submission we noted the part of the Government consultation that said that ‘survey after survey shows that consumers believe packaging is a big environmental problem.’

Oh dear. It’s always a shame when the realm of facts is abandoned for the world of beliefs. In our evidence we simply noted that ‘Packaging is a solution as it saves far more waste than it creates and conserves far more.’

I’ll say it again. Packaging is not product. People buy and consume products not packaging. Packaging is merely the delivery system through which the product moves to reach consumers.

And what about those consumers, their beliefs and the politicians that serve them? For example, does the Government – any government – and its politicians ever have anything critical to say about the level of consumption of goods in this country?

What government today would ever presume to get elected by promising consumers less? – fewer goods? less choice? less consumption? It’s not really a runner is it?

Consumers, by and large, want more and more. At least they believe they do. Governments needing to get elected want to go on promising more and more. They also believe they cannot afford to do otherwise. Until that cycle is ever broken our political model will not change.

The truth is that consumers themselves are the origin and cause of ever-increasing consumption. The material evidence of product delivery solutions merely serves to remind consumers how much they consume. They may not like it, but it’s a fact – however embarrasing and inconvenient.

Many thanks again

Dick Searle

Consumer responsibility

Dick SearleOK, I know. The phrase probably does sound a little funny doesn’t it? After all, our ears have been attuned to decades of consumer choice and purchasing power – but consumer responsibility?

Over the last twenty years or more those of us at the industry/environmental interface have certainly been more used to hearing the slogan of producer responsibility. The producer of any goods has been identified and taxed as the one with entire responsibility – from cradle to grave; or cradle to cradle. The consumer – or user? Not in the equation.

But as our world grows up we realise that it really takes two to tango. Without buyers – no sellers. Without consumers – no consumption and no producers.

It is now surely time to include consumers in the whole picture and stop treating them as passive bystanders. It is also time for consumers to assert themselves and stop seeing themselves as victims without responsibility. If ever our society recently needed a reminder of this mindset – we got it; in the shape of the looting that took place in some UK cities in August of this year.

Clearly our view of both consumption, production and unlimited growth clearly has to change.

Trouble is, it’s not just the disaffected youth who are sleep walking through a dream of unlimited consumption: It’s often said to me, for example, that no vote-seeking politician could ever dream of going to the hustings and offering voters less than more; more jobs; more growth; more money; more consumption.

Instead, and all too often, weak politicians who are unable to face this fact and make some real changes find it much easier to find something or someone to blame. A totemic red herring – such as packaging –  will usually do.

So let me say it again – and again. Packaging – delivery systems for society’s products – is not the problem. Unlimited consumption, population growth, limited resources, litter,  human and social behaviours – these are problems that require mature and balanced reasoning and social leadership. And that, as they say, is another story.

Just to finish up that here – with this new blog at the Packaging Federation – we are looking forward to sharing some home truths,  some reality checks and viewpoints. We hope that you find it amusing, surprising, challenging, interesting.

As ever, a picture tells a thousand words – and a video even more so. Take a look at this clip – it very much shares what I wanted to say here.

Thanks again

Dick Searle